In the beginning …
The 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals, is a grand, lavish, and wildly ambitious project. It moves Marvel’s Phase Four in a bold and daring new direction. The film is based on the comic books by Jack Kirby. With a colossal scope and scale, Eternals sports a large ensemble cast and tells a sprawling, epic story spanning many millennia, mixing real-life historical events with Marvel lore and ethos. As is with most ambitious endeavors, Eternals hits in areas and misses in others (it probably hits more than it misses, though). The film is at its best when exploring the multitude of characters and their connections to one another, human history, and the MCU at large. It’s a spectacular visual feast, too, possibly Marvel’s most stunning entry, which makes Eternals perfect for bigscreen viewing.
The Eternals are an ageless, immortal alien race created by galactic god-sized entities known as Celestials; the key Celestial here is the red stone-like Arishem the Judge (voiced by David Kaye). The Eternals have been secretly living on Earth for over seven thousand years, existing silently among humans throughout Marvel’s Infinity Saga. The heroes that make up the Eternals are mostly obscure. The lineup includes Ikaris (Richard Madden), the most powerful in the team; matter manipulator Sersi (Gemma Chan); Thena (Angelina Jolie), an elite warrior able to form weapons out of cosmic energy; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who can fire other-worldly projectiles from his hands; Sprite (Lia McHugh), an old soul in a 12-year-old’s body, who’s able to project life-like illusions; super-smart weapons and technology inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry); speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff); strongman Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok), mind manipulator Druig (Barry Keoghan); and spiritual leader Ajak (Salma Hayek).
Eternals is set primarily after the events of Avengers: Endgame, or ‘present-day.’ The film, however, has a non-linear structure, which makes some of the exposition or info dumps confusing. We are whisked across multiple continents and time periods, often making it difficult to pinpoint when or where we are. There are sections set in distinctive eras of human civilization, looking at the role the Eternals played in mankind’s development, such as the Stone Age and Ancient Babylon.
The principal narrative, though, focuses on the Eternals having to re-team after spending thousands of years apart. They separated when they thought their mission to eliminate their evil counterparts, the Deviants, was complete — ferocious creatures that evolve by consuming the abilities of their predators. The story kicks into gear when a new kind of Deviant emerges in London, presumed to be Deviant leader Kro (Bill Skarsgård), who can think, scheme, and communicate, just like a human. Thus, the demigods are forced to reunite to fight their common enemy, whom they thought they wiped off the face of the earth centuries ago.
Directed by Chloé Zhao, Nomadland (2020), Eternals is an odd type of MCU movie, kind of like a large-scale indie film — it’s more along the lines of a cerebral humanist action-drama as opposed to your regular popcorn superhero flick. Zhao tries to do some big things by essentially re-writing every religious story and scientific account ever documented, effectively linking our entire existence to the MCU. While some of it works, it comes off as heavy-handed and borderline conceited, with Marvel overlord Kevin Feige basically reshaping our entire history so that it can fit into his monolithic creation. To be honest, Eternals feels more like a DC film than it does a Marvel one. The titular team pretty much has their own versions of Superman (Ikaris can fly and shoot energy beams from his eyes) and The Flash (Makkari possesses the power of super-speed). At one point, the characters even reference Batman and Superman, which feels a bit on the nose. Eternals, however, suffers from the same pitfalls as 2017’s Justice League – too many characters and too little time.
All up, there are ten Eternals, way too many to really get to know over the course of a single film. Granted, Eternals is 157 minutes long, but that’s still not enough time to explore everything that Zhao and her writers — Patrick Burleigh, Ryan and Kaz Firpo — try to shove into their movie. There are inklings of good ideas sprinkled throughout, such as Phastos’ guilt over planting the seeds of the technological advancements that have led to death and destruction, or Sprite’s curse, who’s doomed to live out her days in a child’s body forever. Then there’s the thousand-year romance between Ikaris and Sersi, who broke up many, many years ago. Ikaris reconnects with his ex and discovers that she’s dating the human Dane Whitman (Kit Harington). The Eternals are quite fascinating characters; they symbolize change and evolution yet are constant and never changing themselves, never evolving and growing. This is an interesting thread, thematically, and it doesn’t nearly get enough exploration.
There’s even intriguing stuff about the birth of a Celestial, which comments on how death and rebirth are inextricably linked. Sadly, the more compelling concepts are skimmed over in order to get to the conventional MCU beats. Moreover, with so much going on, very little time is given to the Deviants, who, from what I understand, have more of a purpose/ goal in the comics than they do here, where they’re just mindless four-legged monsters who eat and attack people. Truthfully, this is a case where a twelve-episode series would have worked better, giving audiences a chance to really get to know these characters and understand their world and psyche.
On a technical front, Eternals looks superb, with the cinematography by Ben Davis, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), possessing a real National Geographic type vibe. Even the VFX are stellar, and eons away from the cartoon-looking drek we got in Black Widow earlier this year. Given that this is her first real studio pic, Zhao handles the action well, staging a bunch of memorable slugfests; the highpoints are a brief but kick-ass clash in Aztec period Mexico, a mid-film battle in the South American jungle, and the big finale, which takes place at a fiery volcano. The score by Ramin Djawadi, Iron Man (2008), complements the proceedings and gives the whole thing a quasi-biblical feel.
The diverse cast is great, most doing the best they can with the limitations of their screen time. Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians (2018), whose Sersi is the closest thing we get to a central character, is okay in the leading role, despite being rather passive and bland (I blame the script). Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden is also good as the all-powerful Ikaris. At the same time, Angelina Jolie, Maleficent (2014), thrives in a smaller role as Thena, who’s struggling with a dementia-like condition called ‘Mahd Wy’ry’ (pronounced ‘Mad Weary’). Despite her limited dialogue, deaf actress Lauren Ridloff, The Sound of Metal (2019), does a lot with the character of Makkari, the first-ever deaf superhero.
Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), is endearing as Marvel’s first LGBT+ character Phastos, who’s in a longtime relationship with another man, Ben (Haaz Sleiman), and is raising a kid, Jack (Esai Daniel Cross). While this is a good step forward for queer representation in mainstream cinema, Henry’s character is far from a central player and kind of arrives late in the game. Still, kudos for the on-screen kiss; hopefully, we’ll get an LGBT+ protagonist sooner rather than later. This brings me to Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo. Having become a Bollywood sensation since defeating the Deviants, Nanjiani’s Kingo provides most of the film’s laughs when he’s called back into action. Kingo even brings his manager Karun (Harish Patel) along on the adventure to videotape his exploits. Sporting a body transformation that sent the online world into a frenzy back in 2019, Nanjiani certainly looks like a chiseled superhero, beefing up to resemble Bollywood star, Hrithik Roshan. His muscular makeover, however, has recently sparked a debate on whether he used steroids to achieve his ripped physique, Nanjiani claiming that he now feels uncomfortable talking about his body.
Eternals is probably the most dissimilar film in the MCU to date. It strays away from the established formula, doesn’t really reference the wider MCU (bar a couple of throw-away lines), and is the closest thing to a ‘stand-alone’ outing since the original Iron Man back in 2008. Sure, it’s got a solid cast and is helmed by one of the best young directors working today, but given its evident problems and heady subject matter, it’s going to be a divisive flick. At the very least, Marvel enthusiasts might be happy with the movie’s mid and post-credit scenes, both of which introduce some exciting new characters to the universe and could very well be the best ‘credit scene teasers’ we’ve had since that killer at the end of 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)